Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Yesterday there were reports in the Irish Examiner and a very serious front-page article that three college students have been raped in Cork since the commencement of the academic year. The director of the rape crisis centre, Mary Crilly, who has outstanding credibility in this field for many years and who has been running that particular centre said the young women involved were between 18 and 19 years of age. The most alarming fact is the three women did not feel they could go to the Garda because of the circumstances of the sexual assault and the rape. They went to the rape crisis centre. They felt it was their own fault as alcohol was involved. Two of the three women have already dropped out of college. There is research and evidence to suggest that September and October can be the most dangerous time for young women, particularly first-year students, as they are going to college. There are commitments in the programme for Government to legislation to reduce excessive delays in trials and court proceedings but this is beyond that. I ask the Minister for Justice and Equality to convene an urgent forum involving the Garda Commissioner, representatives of the Rape Crisis Network, leaders of third-level institutions and the Higher Education Authority to begin the process of looking at this in a more comprehensive way than we have done to date. It is alarming. Apparently it is happening across the country. There was a report today on Galway. People are vulnerable during freshers' week and the first month. We cannot read these reports and not respond in a comprehensive, urgent and different way in addition to whatever legislation we have to introduce.

We should support the sex education Bill as well.

I share the concern of Deputy Micheál Martin on the matter of these reports. I have been engaging with Garda management on the issue and with interested stakeholders and advocacy groups. There is merit in making contact with the management teams in our third-level colleges. I acknowledge the importance of the Garda protective services unit, which is engaged on the ground in ensuring those who report crime of a sexual nature are dealt with in a most compassionate and comprehensive way. I urge any person and any young woman in particular who suffers as a result of such criminal activity to report the matter to the Garda Síochána where there are structures available. I acknowledge the legislative programme in that regard to ensure those who are brought to court and convicted of such crimes are dealt with. Later this afternoon, the House will discuss the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill.

In conclusion, I will point to a review of the practice and procedure of reporting on sexual offences which is under way under the chair of Mr. Tom O'Malley of NUI Galway. There is merit in making direct contact on this specific issue with the heads of colleges and those involved in pastoral care in our colleges to ensure that anybody who suffers at the hands of a criminal receives an adequate and comprehensive response from the State.

If we continue in this vein, we will get eight questions so Deputies should think of their colleagues who want to ask questions. I know Deputy McDonald will abide by that.

I will keep it in mind. Last night the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government survived a motion of no confidence as a result of the cowardice of Fianna Fáil. Despite that, the issue of demanding political accountability for housing and homelessness is not going away. We need a huge change of direction and policy that delivers secure, affordable housing for all our citizens. In the coming weeks, we will have a referendum on the issue of blasphemy. I am sure it is a very worthy issue but it is not the most pressing one we face. A more productive course of action would be to hold a referendum on the right to housing. That would give effect to the decision by 80% of the participants in the Constitutional Convention that such a right ought to be enshrined in the Constitution. It is not a novel idea. In fact, over 80 countries across the world already have the right to a home enshrined in their basic law and their Constitution. The Government could and should provide for the holding of a referendum to enshrine a citizen's right to a home and the right to housing in the Constitution and the Government should do it without delay. It could be done on the occasion of the local and European elections in May if not before that. Will the Taoiseach take that course of action? We heard - and I agree with the Taoiseach - that empathy on this issue is not the sole preserve of any party in this House or any individual. Let us have demonstrable evidence of the Government's empathy, understanding and compassion and let us have this referendum.

If the Deputy has a specific proposal to make on the wording of the referendum, we would be happy to consider it but we always need to be very cautious about amending our Constitution. As the Deputy rightly points out, 83 countries have a legal right to housing and many of those countries have a homelessness crisis and people living in shanty towns. Putting something into the Constitution or law does not mean it will have any impact on people's lives. There is always the risk that if something is put into the Constitution it may be interpreted in a particular way by the courts. What if, for example, as in many of those 83 countries, it turned out to be a meaningless right? What if it turned out to be a basis on which somebody could sue the State and instead of spending money building houses we would spend that money compensating people for not having a house? That would not make sense either. When changing the Constitution, one needs to know exactly what the wording is, what it means and what the implications are.

The convention considered all of those matters.

That is why it is important that on housing Sinn Féin should have thought-out policies, which it does not at the moment.

Page 103 of the programme for Government says the State will provide a safe haven for refugees. We all applauded the sterling wok of the Naval Service in rescuing distressed families and children in the Mediterranean. The Aquarius vessel has been operating in the Mediterranean rescuing migrants at sea. Médecins sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée have described the decision by the Panama maritime authority to deflag that vessel as a major blow. There are concerns that Panama was forced to revoke the registration due to pressure from the Italian Government. Médecins sans Frontières has asked other European Governments to consider the issuing of a flag to Aquarius to continue its work. It is the last private vessel operating between Libya and Europe. Last week it rescued seven families including 18 children and one woman who was 23 weeks pregnant. I do not expect the Taoiseach to give me a "Yes" or "No" answer now. Will he consider offering an Irish flag to the Aquarius to continue its humanitarian work?

If the vessel makes an application to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport or the Irish Maritime Development Office, the application will be considered. That would be the case for any vessel as whether it is a ship or an aircraft that wants to be registered in Ireland or have an Irish flag, it will be considered.

Does the Taoiseach have a view?

I have not seen the application. Is the captain qualified? Is the vessel seaworthy?

The programme for Government talks of rebuilding Ireland. The plan is evidently not working. The Minister last night in the debate said he would like to hear alternatives. Our alternative is based on the idea of public housing to be built on public land. I have four examples here of how that might be done.

The first is Damastown village in Dublin West for 1,200 social and affordable houses. Another is the site on the Old Whitechurch Road in Cork for 800 social and affordable houses. There are also Kilcarbery Grange in the South Dublin County Council area and Belcamp Lane in the Dublin City Council area for 892 and 532 social and affordable houses, respectively. These are plans for mixed communities, 100% social and public affordable housing without the need for any privatisation whatsoever. The Dublin West proposal has been on the desk of the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government for the guts of a year. At the end of this session, I will give the Taoiseach details on all four but I ask him to comment now on the idea of public housing on public land, which is a good and viable alternative to the Government's plan for mass privatisation of land through the Land Development Agency.

This is awful play-acting on an important and serious issue. The Deputy is well aware that those councils have developed plans for those lands: Fingal County Council with Damastown, and South Dublin County Council with Kilcarbery. What they have proposed is a mix of housing, that is, some private housing for young people who want to buy and own their first house, some affordable housing for people who qualify for it, and social housing for those on the housing list. That is the right way to go about this. We should have integrated mixed communities and use those lands to build social housing for those who need it, affordable housing for those who qualify for it, and private housing for those who want to buy their own homes, in order that everyone can live together and we can build communities as well as houses. What the socialists want is something different. They want segregation, to divide people and to have people living in council estates in one area and private estates in the other. They want a wall built between the two. They want to divide our society into people who live in different areas, with some people paying for everything but qualifying for nothing. It is the wrong way of doing it.

The promised legislation is on Rebuilding Ireland. The latest Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, report has raised further alarm bells about the impact of the housing crisis. The report highlights that there appears to be no end in sight to the pressure on rent prices. In particular, this pressure affects low-income families in the private rental sector. Apart from the human misery this causes, the ESRI now warns that the issue directly affects our international competitiveness, which is something that we can all see and easily understand. Will the Taoiseach now accept that the policies he is pursuing will have no impact for a number of years on the cost of rent, and that it will effectively wipe out any increases or extra moneys that may be made available to families after the budget? People cannot get accommodation and it is simple as that. Therefore, the Rebuilding Ireland policy is not working.

What was the question?

The question is on the ESRI's report that the rent for low-income families, along with all families, is increasing. The Rebuilding Ireland policy is failing, and we are losing our competitiveness because we cannot attract people back here to live and work.

There is legislation pending on the rent pressure zones and to strengthen the provisions therein. The ESRI report today actually says something quite different from what the Deputy claims. It indicates that 18,655 new homes will be built this year, rising to 24,500 units in 2019. Therefore, it indicates we will meet or exceed our new build targets.

My question is on climate change. Last Wednesday was a serious day weather-wise for this country. It seems that some people have forgotten that two people lost their lives. Some 200,000 people's homes and businesses lost power. A number of people were trapped in vehicles by falling trees. In some ways it appears that Met Éireann and others got it wrong. It was a serious event. I drove from Roscommon to Dublin, and the amount of debris flying around the place was shocking. Even in this city some people were trapped in cars by falling trees.

This brings me to the national weather forecasting service which has been promised. We know the steering group has been set up and it has had a number of meetings. I understand terms of reference have been agreed and some other issues have been addressed. This service will deal with flood forecasting, which is so important due to climate change. I was somewhat annoyed that Deputy Ryan was dismissed in some important points he was making. It is anticipated it will take five years to put this service in place. As the Taoiseach knows, wind and rain will not wait for anybody. Only two staff have been appointed but 15 are needed. I appeal to the Government to speed this up. We are told many storms will come our way because of climate change, and it is a matter we must take seriously.

My Department, along with other Departments, is working closely with Met Éireann. Staff have been appointed and more will be appointed, but there is no easy solution. High-quality and trained people are required, and it takes time. It will take five years. There is no point in saying we will throw money at it and there will be staff on the ground. That is not possible.

In fairness, last week Met Éíreann was on top of the brief, as were my Department and every other Department that sits around the table. We had a number of discussions on it. The way the weather hit was unfortunate but we are fully aware of the work we must do to try to-----

I call Deputy Danny Healy-Rae to ask a question on promised legislation.

In 2012 the then Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, changed the pension rules. Women who came of pension age and applied for that pension in 2012 either got no pension or got a reduced pension. While the Taoiseach indicated he would start to address that anomaly in this budget, I would like to ask him about another category of women who are mothers to the men and women of today and who were altogether left behind. They got no pension because they reared their children and stayed at home. Many of them are in their 70s and 80s and are still alive. They deserve recognition in this budget as well to ensure they are in some way rewarded and recognised for what they have done for this country. They are the mothers of the people who are running the country today. I see the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Doherty, nodding her head.

I reassure the House that the 67,000 pensioners who received a smaller pension due the change in the rate bands will have the issue rectified in the coming months. We had a lengthy discussion about it on Question Time this morning. It will happen between now and March of next year. There are a considerable number of people, just under 90,000, who are in receipt of a non-contributory pension, the vast majority of whom are the people the Deputy has described. There is no discrimination, alienation or non-recognition of the contribution those people made to rearing their families and to the State. The vast majority of them are women and they are in receipt of a non-contributory pension because they did not have enough or any contributions.

I commend the Taoiseach on his advice to the Sinn Féín leader to think out her policies before she proposes them. I remind him of the Fine Gael 2011 health commitment on universal health insurance, and the adage "Practise what you preach" is apt. In the programme for Government, a clear commitment was given to support and grow our tourism industry. In 2013 the Taoiseach was the Minister who introduced the 9.5% VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality industry, the effect of which has been significant. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the 9.5% VAT rate for the tourism and hospitality industry will continue into 2019 and beyond?

The Deputy should get the rate right first.

I cannot give any particular commitments on the budget at this stage. There are many moving parts, and decisions have yet to be made on tax or spending.

Last Tuesday I asked the Taoiseach about the provision of the drug Spinraza for children suffering from spinal muscular atrophy, SMA. In his response he said efficacy was one of the issues as well as cost. I ask him to correct the record, as efficacy is not an issue. The HSE has fully acknowledged that the drug works and works well, and it is solely an issue of cost.

I ask the Taoiseach to ask the Minister for Health to engage with these families because he has not done so. He did, however, manage to tweet that he thinks the HSE should engage with Biogen and that he will make sure that it does this. Biogen and the HSE have, as of yet, had no further engagement. Biogen is waiting for the HSE to respond to it. I ask the Taoiseach again to correct the record and acknowledge efficacy is not an issue. The drug works. I also ask that the Minister of Health be directed to engage with these families and that the HSE be directed to engage with Biogen. I understand the HSE is meeting on Friday to discuss this drug. The families are waiting with desperation to hear that answer.

I will have to take a look at the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, NCPE, report myself. Efficacy is never just a case of whether it works or not but to what extent it works, what difference it makes and for how long that difference is sustainable. I will read the report for myself and I will correct the record if the Deputy is correct.

There are many reports on housing, many mentions of housing in A Programme for a Partnership Government and we have had numerous debates on Rebuilding Ireland etc. There are, however, regulations in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government impacting on decisions being made at local authority level. That is particularly the case with residency clauses. Houses built during the boom have residency clauses. Those houses are now coming up for sale and cannot be sold to the families looking for them. The local authorities cite the regulations made by the Department as preventing these houses being sold on to families that badly need them. The Taoiseach should look at the Department. He should make sure that any regulations or bureaucratic frustrations in the Department that are stopping houses being moved on to genuine people who need them should be obliterated. It should be made certain that there is a free flow of these houses.

I am afraid I am not familiar with the detail of that particular issue but I will certainly inform the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, that the Deputy raised it. I will ask him to send a written response.

One in six Irish couples struggle with fertility. There is no public system to allow for in vitro fertilisation, IVF, treatment. This Government has committed, from 2019, to funding IVF treatment for couples unable to conceive. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has stated that the assisted human reproduction Bill will regulate the area regarding the support that will be provided from 2019. The Minister has also stated that financial assistance will be available to families. A woman approached my constituency office only last week. She has been married for the past five years and is 39 years old. She and her husband have been trying to have a child for the last five years. She had €30,000 in the bank and has spent all of that on trying to have a child. I am pleading with the Minister as a father and a grandfather who knows what joy and pleasure a child can bring. When is this Bill going to come before the House? I urge that the normal person, who may not have a medical card, not be stopped-----

We just need the principle of the question which is when is the Bill coming before the House.

Please do not let the normal person who has not got a medical card-----

Deputy Fitzpatrick's time is up. The principle of the question is when is the Bill coming before the House.

Please do not let people without medical cards only receive the support.

This not on Second Stage.

Middle class people need to be looked after. This woman and her husband have spent over €30,000-----

There is no point in the Deputy repeating himself. There are others behind Deputy Fitzpatrick. It is a simple question for the Taoiseach. When is the Bill coming before the House?

I acknowledge that the Deputy has raised this important question. All of us know from our personal lives or from our constituents that a large number of people have to spend a lot of money to access IVF treatment. The Government's objective is to legislate for it. We do not have any legislation governing assisted human reproduction in Ireland. It is an unregulated area, which is far from ideal because people can be exploited on occasions and we want to make sure we bring in some form of funding for it. There is already some support in that medicines and clinical expenses can be offset against income tax but that is only 20%. I believe the legislation has gone to pre-legislative scrutiny but we do not have a date for publication.

Monday's edition of The Irish Times carried an article by the provost of Trinity College Dublin, Dr. Patrick Prendergast. He made a point that I have been making for some time. Investment in research is critical and not just in commercial research, which is highly important, but in basic pioneering research. The most important discoveries happen by accident when great minds are concentrated with relevant supports. The reality is that sector of our education and enterprise portfolio is being squeezed. The discovery and frontier of basic research is not being funded as funding is being diverted elsewhere. Will the Taoiseach answer the provost's call and engage with the sector because we fear a loss of talent, risk a degradation of our education sector and, by extension, enterprise if this is not tackled?

This is a budgetary matter but no decisions have yet been made on spending our taxation in the budget. There was an increase in funding for third level of €50 million last year and it is anticipated that there will be a similar increase for next year but I cannot say for sure how that will be divvied up. That is yet to be decided.

I call Deputy Kevin O'Keeffe with short, snappy questions.

Always. This weekend in my home town of Fermoy, the Thomas Kent school of history symposium is being held. I ask the Taoiseach to propose that the Department of Education and Skills revisit the downgrading of history as a subject in the new junior certificate. History should be kept compulsory in light of the changing facade of modern day society. It must be acknowledged that things being decided today are often based on what we know from the past. That is why history should be kept as a compulsory subject in our curriculum.

History is only a compulsory subject in voluntary secondary schools. It is not compulsory in half of the sector. Despite that, 90% of people take up history. The new curriculum will be much more creative in its content and we believe it will attract people to take up history. It will also be more fulfilling in that they will look at history in the context of their own community and it will encourage research and curiosity about that community. We feel it is a very strong curriculum. Broadly, we have introduced limited compulsion into the junior cycle. Only mathematics, Irish and English will be compulsory subjects and this followed wide consultation on the best way to develop a junior cycle programme that developed the talents of people for future needs. That is why more student choice was built into this and less compulsion. We are confident that in the choice of the ten subjects junior cycle students will make, we will see a continuing high take-up of history.

Following on from Sinn Féin's motion last night, when will the Government change the tenant purchase scheme to allow the 80% of people who are local authority tenants and who wish to purchase their homes the chance to so do? At the moment, anybody on an unemployment payment, a pension or who is not working is debarred from availing of the present tenant purchase scheme. When is it going to be changed?

I will have to ask the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, to provide a reply to the Deputy on the specifics. He must, however, bear in mind that what we are trying to do at the moment is increase our social housing stock. A huge amount of social housing stock was sold off and there are consequences as a result. It is not the cause of the housing crisis by any means but we need to be careful that we are not on the one hand building new social housing and on the other hand selling off the social housing that we have. Surely that is not a sensible policy.

It is privatisation-----

They are entitled to own their own home if they want to.

Page 101 of A Programme for a Partnership Government states the Government will reopen a number of Garda stations. Six such reopenings were announced subsequently, one of which was Ballinspittle Garda station in west Cork. I have asked this question repeatedly but will the Taoiseach tell us today when will Ballinspittle Garda station be reopened and be fully manned so as to protect the people of the Ballinspittle community?

They might appear again.

I am keen that the commitment be complied with fully. There are ongoing negotiations between my Department, the Garda Síochána and the Office of Public Works to ensure that the six pilot Garda stations will reopen at the earliest opportunity. Costings have been prepared and plans are proceeding.

The first line on page 53 of A Programme for a Partnership Government on the Government's health plans states that efforts to increase access to safe and timely care as close to patients' homes as possible will be a priority for the Government. I draw attention in that regard to the demonstration outside of the Dáil today where a number of Lyme disease suffers have gathered here, not for the first time, to raise awareness of that disease. They also want to draw attention to the level of care, assessment and investigation available within the country for that illness. Many suffers have had to go to Germany to receive diagnoses. As the Taoiseach will be aware, a cross-party Oireachtas committee has been set up to try to move this issue forward. I ask for an update on the Government's considerations in this matter and on the plans to ensure there is a better service for Lyme suffers in this country.

As the Deputy said, a large group of people have travelled from different areas, including those who have been affected by Lyme disease, and their families and friends. The problem is multi-facetted. A comprehensive strategy is required to address the issues and the challenges posed by the disease. Such a strategy should involve education, awareness and greater research, but diagnosis and treatment should also form a part of it. It is not acceptable that people must travel abroad, in some instances to Germany, at their own cost to get a diagnosis and then have to travel for treatment as well.

Has there been any progress on developing a comprehensive strategy to deal with the challenges posed by Lyme disease?

I will have to ask the Minister for Health to provide a response to the Deputies. Chronic Lyme disease, as opposed to acute Lyme disease, is a controversial diagnosis. There are disputes among medical professionals as to whether suggested treatments, such as long-term antibiotics, are appropriate, and there are often issues around the accreditations of laboratories overseas.

President Juncker, in his State of the Union address last week, made it clear that the European Commission and Parliament will pass plastics legislation that will help people to stop wasting single use plastics. The legislation mirrors the Waste Reduction Bill the Green Party introduced more than a year ago. Our committee had to write to the President of the European Commission and the European Council to say that the Government has no intention of dealing with plastics in the immediate term. Those bodies will not be surprised, because we do not do environmental legislation. What is the Taoiseach fearful of? He should allow a Committee Stage debate on the Waste Reduction Bill. The rest of the House wants to debate this issue. It could set out the approach we will take and give the Government or any future Government time to introduce it. Why is the Taoiseach fearful of such a debate? Why is he spinning the issue, telling people on Twitter that they have to do the right thing with plastics but taking no action to make it easier for people to do that? Will he allow Committee Stage debate on the Waste Reduction Bill?

I have explained the reasons the Government, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, in particular, have a problem with the Bill proposed by the Deputy. It is not the case that we do not do environmental legislation. We have passed legislation in this House to divest the State from investing in hydrocarbons and similar types of investment, while legislation on microbeads appears on the priority list for this session.

I wish to raise again the question of the urgent need to introduce a code of conduct to protect homeowners and small business owners who have found themselves in difficulty meeting their mortgage repayments and who are currently the subject of litigation which, if allowed to continue unabated, will result in a sharp increase in homelessness throughout the country. I understand the Minister has indicated that he is working on such a code of conduct, but it must be done soon.

A number of Departments are involved in this issue, including the Department of Justice and Equality. I assure the Deputy of the success of the Abhaile scheme, and also point out that amending legislation was initiated by my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Moran, which I intend to present to the House over the next few weeks.

When it is intended to restore the motorised transport grant and mobility allowance? I have asked this question on five previous occasions. This has been closed to new entrants since 2013, which is five years ago. I asked the Taoiseach's predecessor the same question on at least a dozen occasions and have consistently been told that it is being worked on. I have had the same response for the past five years. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, introduced a memo to Cabinet recently on this matter which had to be withdrawn, so how much longer is it going to remain closed for?

The scheme is still being worked on. The Minister of State brought some proposals to Cabinet, but there were difficulties with them. Part of the issue is how a new scheme is designed and deciding on those to be included. The wider a scheme is, the more it costs, which makes it harder to do. Finding the correct balance for a new scheme and ensuring that it is doable and affordable is one of the difficulties but, as I understand it, it is the intention of the Minister of State to bring a proposal to the committee and to allow people to deliberate on it on an all-party basis.

Page 45 of the programme for Government deals with tourism and greenways. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Griffin, for visiting the great southern greenway in County Limerick recently. That greenway stretches into County Kerry. Applications have been made to Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, for signage on the N21, and I am asking that this be prioritised so that decent signage can be placed on that road. We hear of the Waterford greenway, among others, but there is also a fantastic greenway in County Limerick. Applications have been made to resurface that greenway, but we need signage on the N21 - the Dublin to Killarney route - to let people know they can stop at Rathkeale and towns along the greenway and to ensure they make use of Limerick's tourism offering.

I thank the Deputy for bringing the great southern greenway to the attention of the House. I was on that greenway when I was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport years ago, and I will certainly ensure that my office passes on his concerns about signage to TII. There are rules about how many people must use a facility before it is brown-signed, but I will certainly make the authority aware that the Deputy has raised this issue and has made this proposal.